The first time singer/songwriter Gita Buhari visited Ghana she was two years old. When she was twenty-three she went for an extended period to conduct fieldwork for her bachelors. She noticed that when she went for shorter visits she would feel out of place as she didn’t speak the local language or know how to act. But during her fieldwork “everything sort of fell into place” and she came away with a better understanding of her Ghanaian father.
I spoke with Gita about her music, race and the importance of belonging.
Gita was born and raised in Rotterdam, the Netherlands by her Ghanaian father and Dutch mother. As a proud ‘Rotterdammer’ she declares, “Rotterdam is the nicest city in The Netherlands.” At age seventeen she learnt that “the rest of the Netherlands didn’t feel that way”. During her Bachelors in Cultural Anthropology in Utrecht, her fellow Dutch classmates confronted her with stereotypes of Rotterdam as a ‘rough’ and ‘criminal’ place, something she never personally experienced. She had a happy childhood and enjoyed growing up in a diverse, multicultural city where people adopted a type of slang that was a composite of all the different ethnic and cultural influences of the city. “In Rotterdam slang is normalized,” she explained. Now outside of Rotterdam she felt compelled to change the way she spoke, refraining from slang so people would understand her.
The paradox of race in The Netherlands has been articulately examined again and again. With that in mind, I asked her about the challenges biracial women face in The Netherlands. “I think it will be probably different for each woman.” She explained that when she is in Ghana people see her as white and when she is in The Netherlands she is considered black.
Her experience of being both black and white in The Netherlands was sometimes trying. For her, it meant receiving harmful, offensive and problematic “compliments” such as, ‘I don’t fall for black women but you are special…’ or people making racist jokes in front of her because she ‘gets it’. In some of her songs, she sings about experiencing an identity crisis and living in two worlds: one European and one African. The feeling that you don’t belong anywhere and in some spaces, you pass as the more acceptable black person in the group.
Gita is just at the beginning of her music career. As a student in 2013, she was part of ‘Gita Buhari & Blackout Orchestra’. The band then broke up after a year and a half of performing together. Now with Arjuna Vlasblom the producer/bass player and Ed van den Dool on the electronic guitar and a new member, Brenn Luiten, playing the piano and synthesizer they have reformed as the eponymous Gita Buhari with a more electronic sound. To the horror of genre-less music fans, I try and pin down their genre. She hums and then says, “that’s a very hard question, I guess because of my voice it’s still pretty soulful… we call it melancholic soul… trip-hop or neo-soul.”
When she is not creating music, Gita works as a peer educator for Amnesty International. They’ve developed a program about the police and ethnic profiling. As peer educators, they go to schools and conduct lessons where, among other topics, they ask students if they think discrimination is a big issue in the Netherlands. Depending on which school, and which city they are in, the answers vary. She also works with Sex Matters, an organization in Amsterdam founded by anthropologists. There she hosts workshops about gender, consent, and sexuality in a more informal setting than the classroom.
Talking to Gita, I realize inclusion is a theme threading through her work both inside and outside the studio booth. She has always been interested in amplifying the voices of minorities. “I am not sure if it’s because of my cultural background… or maybe studying Anthropology… but being partly African and from another culture helps me understand certain issues a little more. Anthropology is about seeing perspectives and when you are biracial you have to see both perspectives.”
We circle back to discussing the Dutch music scene and how to carve out your own space within it. “We are more known in Rotterdam, [and] when you are a small artist it’s hard to get out of the town you are based in. There is a lot of commercial music that is doing really well, which is fine, but there could be more room for more experimental music. There is this mentality that things need to sell and that is typical for any music scene, not just the Dutch.”
Gender also features heavily as a theme in her music. Gita writes songs about womanhood, things she sees or hears, and insecurities. “Kind of heavy lyrics,” she says, “definitely not happy songs … songs about feelings that are not always easy to talk about.”
She doesn’t have a specific message for her listeners. Instead, it’s more about expressing a certain style and sound: rhythmic melancholic feelings. It is reminiscent of her experiences on diverse perspectives and cultural synthesis that she wants people to feel.
An excerpt from ‘Longing for’ – (lyrics by Gita)
I’m longing for a better place,
A better time, a different space…
Oh oh oh, what am I longing for
Oh oh oh, what am I searching for
Oh oh oh, why do I keep looking for more
Oh oh oh, what am I longing for
I wonder what the world is like with equality…
Gita Buhari’s debut single ‘Mariama’ is out now on Spotify.